4.1.2 Additional search necessary: limited discretion of the examining division

In T 1515/07 the board stated that in normal circumstances an additional search had to be carried out if a search under R. 63 EPC is missing. It was true that the case law allowed discretion in this respect, but this discretion was limited to the special cases of notoriously known features or those explicitly accepted by the applicant as known. In all other cases, an additional search had to be performed. In particular, as long as no search had been performed an examining division should normally not refuse an application for lack of inventive step if the invention as claimed contained at least one technical feature which was not notorious. The examining division considered that it was not "necessary" to carry out a search because a decision could be reached anyway. The examining division was held to have committed a substantial procedural violation within the meaning of R. 103(1)(a) EPC by not performing an additional search that was manifestly necessary. It was therefore equitable to reimburse the appeal fee.

In T 1242/04 (OJ 2007, 421) it was held that only when a search is not at all possible can it be denied under R. 45 EPC 1973. Whether or not the search division believes that the result of a search will be of use for the substantive examination is irrelevant. If nevertheless the situation occurs that no search has been performed although it could (and should) have been, an examining division is not obliged to perform an additional search for purely formal reasons if it considers a refusal of the application to be justified on the basis of prior art which is either so well known that it clearly does not require written proof or is accepted by the applicant as known. In all other cases an additional search should be performed.

In T 690/06 regarding the procedure before the examining division the board was of the opinion that the examining division should have performed an additional search since the database partitioning and access control features were neither non-technical nor notorious. Following the principles set out in T 1242/04, the board considered that, as long as no search has been performed, an examining division should normally not refuse an application for lack of inventive step if the invention as claimed contained at least one technical feature which was not notorious. The term "notorious" had to be interpreted narrowly. See also T 918/14.

In T 1411/08 the board understood "notorious" as implying that technical detail was not significant. The board stated that where a search division has decided that no search was to be performed, it is not always necessary for the examining division to carry out an "additional search" before raising an inventive-step objection. According to the established case law of the boards of appeal it is possible to raise an objection of lack of inventive step without documented prior art. That should be allowable where the objection is based on "notorious knowledge" or indisputably forms part of the common general knowledge (T 1242/04, OJ 2007, 421). Such cases, however, are exceptional, and a search is otherwise essential. In the case in hand, the examining division could and should have ensured that a search was performed before refusing the application for lack of inventive step. The board considered that the failure to carry out an "additional search" constituted a substantial procedural violation.

In T 1924/07 the board held that the applicant's acknowledgement in the original application that certain prior art is known is, in general, not a sufficient reason for not carrying out an additional search. The only condition under which an additional search can be dispensed with is where all the technical features of a claim correspond to "notorious" prior art.

In T 2299/10 the decision under appeal was, inter alia, based on the objection that the subject-matter of claim 1 lacked an inventive step. The EPO acting as International Searching Authority issued a declaration of non-establishment of the international search report under Art. 17(2)(a) PCT. No supplementary European search report was established either. The examining division examined the application despite the fact that no search had been carried out. However, this is only possible in exceptional cases and, according to the jurisprudence of the boards of appeal, an additional search for pertinent prior art may be dispensed with only if the technical features of the claims are considered to be "notorious", i.e. generic and so well known that they cannot reasonably be refuted (see T 1411/08). In the board's judgment, the technical features went beyond the mere common general knowledge and could not be considered "notorious". An applicant's acknowledgement in the original application that certain prior art was known is in general not a sufficient reason for not carrying out an additional search since such statements may be – and indeed frequently are – withdrawn or qualified. Moreover, this could only apply in cases where all the technical features in the claim would be acknowledged as known (see T 1924/07). In the case in hand, however, the appellant did not acknowledge the relevant features of claim 1 mentioned as being known. Thus, claim 1 could not be definitively assessed with respect to novelty and inventive step without knowledge of the relevant documented prior art. Thus the request required a search for relevant prior art. Hence the matter had to be remitted for an additional search and further examination.

In T 2249/13 the appellant doubted the legitimacy of the Notice from the European Patent Office dated 1 October 2007 concerning business methods (OJ 2007, 592), which announced a no-search policy for claims pertaining to business methods. Such discrimination was not justified. It considered that the EPO had enriched itself unfairly by receiving the search fee without performing a search. Furthermore, the no-search declaration of the search division could not be deemed to be a European search report under R. 63(2) EPC as the search division had ignored R. 63(1) EPC by failing to invite the appellant to file a statement indicating the subject-matter to be searched. The board pointed out that the board was applying the EPC and associated provisions as they stand. The Rules Relating to Fees did not provide for a refund of the search fee in case of a no-search declaration under R. 63 EPC. R. 63(2) EPC states that such a no-search declaration shall be considered as the European search report. Further, the fact that the search division did not comply with R. 63(1) EPC (failure to communicate with the appellant) did not alter the legal situation. The search division's actions were not open for review by the board (Art. 106(1) EPC) and, for the same reason, neither was the search division's reliance on the Notice from the EPO dated 1 October 2007 concerning business methods. Therefore, the board considered that the request for a (partial) refund of the search fee was inadmissible.

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